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PBS, CNN not so artful as dodgers Execs can't spit out answers to critics
San Fran Chronicle ^ | July 15, 03 | Tim Goodman

Posted on 07/15/2003 4:54:48 PM PDT by churchillbuff

By Tim Goodman, Chronicle TV Critic Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Hollywood -- ... Nobody likes a dodge. ... Giving a non-answer, avoiding confrontation, failure to admit the truth, spewing bland verbiage in an effort to put us to sleep -- those are the worst offenses. ... CNN just flat out refuses to admit that it's getting its head handed to it by Fox News. This denial is ceaseless. Look, Fox News is pummeling CNN. It's not even a fight anymore. It's a bludgeoning. In the Nielsens universe, which governs all of television -- even news -- CNN can't beat Fox News. The latter is probably the best at understanding what a certain segment of the cable news audience seems to want -- news with a slant. Forget fair and balanced -- that's a slogan for people who believe the news media are biased toward the left. It's a message that caters to and comforts them. There's a term for that:

brilliant marketing.

We no longer live in a world where everyone believes that the news media have no agenda. Objectivity seems antiquated as the level of jadedness in the public rises. The lines between opinion and news have been blurred for too long -- a blame shared by everyone in cable news. But CNN is still viewed as an entity attempting real journalism. Most journalists appreciate that.

And yet, news flash -- it's not a ratings winner.

So, Jim Walton, president of the CNN News Group and a longtime CNN throwback seen in journalistic circles as someone who is dismantling the glitzy star system of his predecessor, had a great opportunity to come in here and say, "Yes, Fox is beating us. But we're in different businesses entirely."

Instead, he couldn't even say his competitor's name, choosing instead to imply that CNN was Rolex and Fox News was Timex. He blathered on about quality and brand and God knows what else. It was a dodge, plain and simple. Everything was a dodge. At that moment, a good portion of the room would have paid anything to have Roger Ailes from Fox News come in and beat the snot out of CNN, at least verbally, as he's wont to do.

Walton, pressed hard about CNN's love affair with the Laci Peterson story, couldn't even tell the truth and say, "Yeah, you know, we maybe spend too much time on it. That's how cable news channels get ratings, and it's a tough game, and we'll take a look at the percentage of our time covering that story."

That's all he had to say. But he didn't. A little truthfulness goes a long way. What CNN needs to understand is that if it wants to claim that journalism is the only important thing and that ratings don't matter, fine. Then do journalism. Don't saturate the airwaves with one salacious story in an effort to get ratings. Stand up for what you believe in. Don't try to play it both ways. Get a game plan, for God's sake. Fox News has one. Maybe that's why it can articulate what it's all about. All Walton did is demonstrate that CNN doesn't know its own story.

PBS has a similar problem. For the most part, it creates fine programming, the kind that TV critics would love to champion. But PBS hasn't learned that it's in a competitive environment. No longer is the business so starkly simple that one can say, "We make quality programming, and everyone else airs garbage. " The fact is, cable channels do much of what PBS does, equally well, and market it better. The disadvantage for PBS is that the system it operates under is a gigantic mess -- the local stations wag the dog and always have. The government helps fund the system, annoying detractors who think some of PBS' news shows or documentaries are either biased or creatively unworthy. Local channels need to beg for money in pledge periods, using cheesy programming that does not reflect normal PBS programming but rakes in dollars - - confounding the idealized notion of the system as a whole and bugging the bejesus out of critics.

On top of that, PBS programs right into the teeth of the network schedule and can't for the life of it figure a way out of that buzz saw -- despite 200 critics trying to program the system for Mitchell and chief scheduler John Wilson every time the two groups meet here on press tour. This results in yelling matches that make everyone involved angry (and, given that it goes on year after year, bored). Every year we ask why they put their best stuff up against the networks (resulting in less coverage on our part), and every year PBS says ratings don't really matter and, besides, the system is working just fine.

But it's not. It's hopelessly broken. Only an insane person would try to run PBS.

That person is Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS.

She is a nice woman who seems tireless in her effort to make PBS better and have it run more efficiently and effectively. People who know her say those things, at least. In front of the critics, the message is somehow lost. You know where? In a dodge. She sits onstage with Wilson and Jacoba Atlas -- the latter two share the same title, senior vice president and co-chief program executive -- which is sooooo PBS it makes you want to vomit.

The three of them can't form a declarative sentence to save their lives. At least Mitchell believes that the vehement anger directed at PBS is a sign that critics really have a passion for the programming. That's mostly true. We wouldn't be there yelling at them if we didn't think the dysfunctional disaster that is PBS is something worth changing, if for nothing else than Ken Burns and others getting a chance to continue turning out brilliant work.

At each press tour, we all gather in a room and they begin trying to hypnotize us with meandering, polite, politically correct PBS-talk. We say, hey, we'd write about your shows more often if they weren't drawing a tiny fraction of what everyone else in the free world is watching. And yes, out of our duty to write about quality and to dig up gems, you do get ink. But you'd get a lot more of it if Suze Orman weren't dominating pledge periods and most of your best shows weren't competing with vastly more popular fare. Besides, the "quality" card can only be played so many times -- there are plenty of great educational fare, documentaries and PBS-like material elsewhere on the dial.

Mitchell's response? Dodging. She probably thinks she's answering, but in effect she's merely talking. If we had real answers -- even blunt ones like, "We think we're doing it right, period and next question" -- then maybe this painful dance would end. But Mitchell and company talk, and we try to find out what they're doing to fix the problems they so willingly say exist, and yet, nothing. There's a word for this: maddening.

Maybe CNN and PBS have flaws they can't bring themselves to talk about honestly. Maybe they haven't done the painful self-analysis that it takes to move forward in this interview-therapy thing we're both participating in. Maybe we critics are just plain wrong and CNN and PBS are both great -- couldn't be better.

Uh, no.

Sometimes it's not easy giving tough love to people you like. But there's no dodging this: CNN is in denial and PBS is flat-out broken.

E-mail Tim Goodman at tgoodman@sfchronicle.com.

(Excerpt) Read more at sfgate.com ...


TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Editorial; US: California
KEYWORDS: mediabias

1 posted on 07/15/2003 4:54:49 PM PDT by churchillbuff
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To: churchillbuff
PBS is not broken because they can always use Sesame Street and Barney to get the Soccer Moms to scream for more federal funding. CNN on the other hand does not have this option.
2 posted on 07/15/2003 5:09:16 PM PDT by Fee
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To: churchillbuff
CNN can deny all they want. But the bottom line is what they have to look at, and it's not a pretty site.
3 posted on 07/15/2003 5:09:19 PM PDT by chainsaw
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To: All

See that good looking dude on the left? He's got FAR BETTER THINGS to do than conduct Freepathons! Come on, let's get this thing over with.

4 posted on 07/15/2003 5:09:42 PM PDT by Support Free Republic (Your support keeps Free Republic going strong!)
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To: churchillbuff
I'm a fan of Tim Goodman. He's a good honest writer, although a liberal.
5 posted on 07/15/2003 5:16:42 PM PDT by I_Love_My_Husband
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To: churchillbuff
I do watch CNN. I don't get Fox, and opposition research amuses me. And I've noticed that in the last 2-3 weeks, CNN seems to have abandoned any pretense of balance. They've basically gone into full throttle, Bush-bashing mode. I wonder if they've realized their core audience is liberal, given up on the rest, and decided to secure their base?
6 posted on 07/15/2003 5:20:01 PM PDT by Right Wing Professor
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To: churchillbuff
Mr. Goodman, its not the packaging. Its the contents.
7 posted on 07/15/2003 5:26:00 PM PDT by VRWC_minion (Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and most are right)
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To: churchillbuff
But CNN is still viewed as an entity attempting real journalism. Most journalists appreciate that.

This is where CNN is really in denial. They can't admit that they are a victim of their own biases.

I'm not going to pretend that FOX is "fair and balanced". But, as long as CNN and every one of FOX's detractors continue to deny their own bias, their ratings are going to erode further.

Fox arose to meet a market requirement: news that was free of liberal spin. However, they swung the pendulum all the way to a conservative spin.

If CNN (and NPR/ABC/CBS/NBC) were to look themselves in the mirror and honestly admit they are projecting their own liberal bias in their choice of news stories and selective reporting of facts, it would be a start.

They could bring viewers back with objective and complete news reports free of any political agenda. But, that effort starts in their own newsroom. Bashing FOX news doesn't solve their root problem.

8 posted on 07/15/2003 5:35:58 PM PDT by justlurking
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To: churchillbuff
But CNN is still viewed as an entity attempting real journalism. Most journalists appreciate that.

ROTFLMAO! By whom, the ever vigilent dope smokin', lying, deceptive, Bush bashing, leftist?

9 posted on 07/15/2003 5:37:45 PM PDT by sirchtruth
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To: churchillbuff
But CNN is still viewed as an entity attempting real journalism.

Where was the "humor" alert on this post?

As for FOX not being "balanced", it certianly is balanced when comparing the population and what they think vs. what the media usually feeds us.

Unfortunatly, even some here have bought into the leftist notion that FOX is conservativly biased. It is, only in comparison with CNN.

10 posted on 07/15/2003 5:47:07 PM PDT by narby
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To: churchillbuff

This guy has answered his own question, and he doesn't even know it. Even though he understands exactly what Fox News is doing, and why it works, he's still under the illusion — as the CNN people themselves are — that CNN is not doing exactly the same thing.

He thinks Fox is slanting the news for a certain segment, and he's right. But he imagines that CNN is not slanting the news, which tells us that he has not read The Tao of Marketing. Fox cannot do what Fox is doing unless CNN is just as slanted in the opposite direction. He doesn't see the slant, because he's as liberal as the weenies running CNN. CNN looks "objective" to him, while Fox looks like a bunch of right-wing crazy people.

He sort of understands this, because he says that 'Fair and Blanced' is, "a slogan for people who believe the news media are biased toward the left." He then dismisses them as idiots or cranks, instead of taking the next step and realizing that to all the people watching Fox, Fox looks objective and CNN looks like a bunch of left-wing crazy people.

The reason CNN is falling on its butt is not that they are objective, it's that they are as slanted as Fox is but they're trying to pretend otherwise, which makes them boring. Where does a poor liberal have to go to get some red meat? Here's this liberal news network. It tells him every day that Bush sucks and that the Democrats shall rise again... which is exactly what he wants to hear. Except that their delivery is so deadpan that it puts him to sleep. Here is some great liberal red meat, but they have it so tenderized and cauterized and homogenized that it's no fun.

And that's because the whole CNN building is full of liberals who think the stuff they're telling people is some sort of Revealed Truth, instead of what it is: the pile of press releases and talking points that were left behind after Fox picked the ones they wanted. Here's the press release from the Green Weenies, here's what Kim Gandy had to say today about why men are scum, here's Daschle expressing sadness and concern... it's all great stuff that liberals would salivate over if the guy reading it had some energy on it. But he doesn't. Snoooooooooze.


11 posted on 07/15/2003 5:56:18 PM PDT by Nick Danger (The liberals are slaughtering themselves at the gates of the newsroom)
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To: sirchtruth
I think the key word was "attempting"...

I think I want give this columnist a hanky for the crying he does for CNN...
12 posted on 07/15/2003 5:57:34 PM PDT by Saint Athanasius (How can there be too many children? That's like saying there are too many flowers - Mother Theresa)
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To: churchillbuff
I don't see Fox as all that conservative, they simply HAVE some conservatives and that alone makes them seem remarkable. Consider CNN's idea of a right-oriented pundit...Bob Novak! And Tucker Carlson! Fox has Geraldo and he sure made me furious this past weekend. He is very much back to his old, left-leaning self and enjoys bashing Pres. Bush as much as any of his former CNBC colleagues.
13 posted on 07/15/2003 5:59:38 PM PDT by BonnieJ
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To: Nick Danger
Part of the problem is that these days liberalism IS boring. They are so pompous and sanctimonious they lack any sense of humor or style, with rare exceptions.
14 posted on 07/15/2003 6:01:22 PM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: Cicero
Part of the problem is that these days liberalism IS boring.

I was trying to be "objective" there (heh heh) and admit that while nothing liberals do is going to excite me, there does exist such a thing as "liberal red meat" that fires up liberals. Michael Moore and Howard Dean seem to have broken that code; why can't CNN?

The humorlessness angle is absolutely true. If science ever figured out a way to put John Kerry's face on Ralph Nader, you would have a thing that could empty a comedy club from a half-mile away.

15 posted on 07/15/2003 6:16:09 PM PDT by Nick Danger (The liberals are slaughtering themselves at the gates of the newsroom)
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Comment #16 Removed by Moderator

To: Nick Danger
There is so much in this article that I hardly know where to begin. But to make a few random points:

1) This guy actually believes that the 4 other networks haven't been spouting liberal propaganda for the past 5 decades. I guess you are correct, he is so trapped in his own ideological dreamworld that he can't see the truth. I'm reminded of the NYC intellectual who said after the '72 election: "this isn't possible, everyone I know voted for McGovern"

2) PBS is a failure for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is essentially a socialist organization. And I am not referring to its politics (though that certainly is socialistic) but rather its actual organizing principles. It is essentially an arm of the state. So it operates with an efficiency somewhere between that of the US Post Office and Soviet agriculture. If that isn't poetic justice, then I don't know what is.

3) Notice the "don't cry for me Argentina" BS that he alludes to when he laments that CNN is failing because it sticks to "objective news" while the clueless American masses just want Roman Coliseum stuff over on Fox. In other words, he is saying essentially: "In a just and sane America, everyone would watch the honest, unbiased news over on CNN, but we elite lefties are stuck in a nation full of rightwing rednecks.....oh the inhumanity of it all!".

4) Last, but not least, I honestly believe that one of the biggest problems that the left is having in TV news and talk radio (ie: they can't find the great white hope = liberal rush limbaugh) is that they've dumbed down their base so effectively. The libs have been gutting education and culture for so many years ("whole language", "black studies", etc) they've turned their various mass constituency groups into dependent, drug-addled wastrels. Now, lo and behold, they can't find a significant audience of people willing to listen to issue-oriented lefty programming. The broad, conservative middle america is impassioned about ideas and tunes into political programming. Outside of the academic lefties, the democrat-voting rabble generally watch MTV or Jerry Springer...which doesn't leave a big group to draw from for that lefty Rush that they are always praying for.

17 posted on 07/15/2003 6:47:04 PM PDT by quebecois
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To: Nick Danger
Good post. The humorlessness, however, comes from the fact that CNN fancies itself to be like the network news divisions which all emphasize being boring as an asset. This boringness comes through in wording (always picking haughty sounding words), story selection, etc. Fox News suceeds, in one sense, because it realizes that viewers dislike this pretentious attitude.

Your point about liberal television being more boring because it is not (usually) written with activist language is right, though. This fact is what causes people like Eric Alterman to assert that there few large news organizations are liberal. In a way, it's correct. There really are more outlets devoted to giving the conservative perspective of the news than liberal ones.

But what Alterman and those who think like him fail to understand is that just because a media outlet is not activist, does not mean that it is unbiased or "centrist." This is why the largest news organizations commonly referred to as "mainstream" can target the apolitical but also engage in biased reporting.

As far as bias at CNN and Fox goes, it's definitely true that bias exists at Fox News. Some of its shows are conservatively biased, but others (like Brit Hume's) are more politically neutral.

Any smart person who works in the television business knows it is liberally dominated. It's just politically incorrect to talk about it. This is why CBS News president Andrew Heyward told Bernard Goldberg that he'd deny ever admitting liberal bias, while at the same time denouncing FNC repeatedly for tilting rightward.

In the eyes of many TV people, to admit liberal bias is to acknowledge that their many critics have a point. This is antithetical to their elitist nature. At least that seems to be the viewpoint of some of the people we've talked to.

18 posted on 07/15/2003 6:49:53 PM PDT by RatherBiased.com
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To: churchillbuff
CNN was Rolex and Fox News was Timex. Timex is making more advertising dollars.Takes a lickin but keeps on tickin.
19 posted on 07/15/2003 6:59:37 PM PDT by fatima (Our troops are the best and we support them.)
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To: churchillbuff
The lines between opinion and news have been blurred for too long -- a blame shared by everyone in cable news.

But not the print media, which, this author apparently implies, are completely objective and unbiased.

20 posted on 07/15/2003 7:05:34 PM PDT by HughSeries
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To: justlurking
Alright, I am interested in your belief in a conservative spin on Fox. Since I don't get Fox News, I only get to see the Pulse and Fox News Sunday on my local Fox station. But, I am impressed by the balance in the news presentation in hard news.

Are you saying that the hard news stories are biased towards conservatives? If so, then I have as much a prob with that as liberal bias.

But, if you are talking about commentary pieces and opinion programs, then bias shouldn't matter. Anyway, I am just curious what type of programming you are referring to.
21 posted on 07/15/2003 7:07:55 PM PDT by rwfromkansas ("There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write 'damnation' with your fingers." C.H. Spurgeon)
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To: Nick Danger
Here, here!

You are exactly right about him answering his own questions. He himself is an answer to like questions. Care to guess whether the circulation of the smelly Chron is going up or down?

22 posted on 07/15/2003 7:08:22 PM PDT by dersepp (I Am A Militia Of One)
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To: Nick Danger; justlurking
There is only one way to judge "objectivity" in news.
"By their fruits ye shall know them."

That is, if you ever thought you would judge the amount of slant in a journalism, you would have to scrutinize that journalism after the passage of time. Look back at CNN coverage of ten and twenty years ago, and see to what extent, and in what direction, the attitudes embedded in the coverage seem obviously slanted, in light of history.

If you do that with journalism which makes no conscious effort to give conservatism an even break, you will inevitably see excessive criticism/inuendo slanted against conservatives.

We can't do that with Fox News yet because it's more recent. But I have no doubt that even FNC will in twenty years seem to give liberalism more than its due. Because the nature of free, competitive journalism is to make mountains of molehills to the detriment of conservatism.

23 posted on 07/15/2003 7:10:03 PM PDT by conservatism_IS_compassion
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To: RatherBiased.com
The bias on opinion shows does not matter though.

It only matters on hard news programming.

If CNN's bias was only on its evening opinion programs, I would defend them.
24 posted on 07/15/2003 7:18:46 PM PDT by rwfromkansas ("There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write 'damnation' with your fingers." C.H. Spurgeon)
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To: rwfromkansas
Are you saying that the hard news stories are biased towards conservatives? If so, then I have as much a prob with that as liberal bias.

No, I don't think FNC's hard news is particularly biased. I say "not particularly" because there is always some degree of bias leaking through in any news report. It's just that FNC runs a lot of commentary and opinion programming, most of it rightward leaning. Contrast this with CNN, who doesn't run a whole lot of opinion/commentary, but runs a lot of what I consider leftward biased hard news.

25 posted on 07/15/2003 7:20:36 PM PDT by squidly
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To: rwfromkansas
Some of the news shows are conservatively oriented such as "Fox and Friends." Other anchors like David Asman and Tony Snow are outspoken conservatives. There's no harm in this provided that Fox hires outspoken liberals as reporters to balance things out. They have a more ideologically balanced staff than CNN does, however.

The only outspoken, conservative, on-air reporter at CNN is Lou Dobbs. As far as the other networks go, John Stossel is a lone voice among the on-camera staff.
26 posted on 07/15/2003 7:29:10 PM PDT by RatherBiased.com
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To: squidly
You answer rw's point well.
27 posted on 07/15/2003 7:30:26 PM PDT by RatherBiased.com
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To: quebecois
the NYC intellectual who said after the '72 election: "this isn't possible, everyone I know voted for McGovern"

Every time I see that quote, I am reminded of a horrible truth: the same was true for me. I was at the time at undergrad living in Palo Alto, CA. Might as well have been Berkeley. People would tell me that the polls were crazy, that McGovern was going to win. I try to remember that around here... this forum can get to be the flip side of Palo Alto when McGovern was running. "Why, every Freeper I know hates Gore... how could he even get close?"

    we elite lefties are stuck in a nation full of rightwing rednecks

That's part of their thing. It's genetic, I think. Sowell explains it pretty well in Vision of the Anointed.

    doesn't leave a big group to draw from for that lefty Rush that they are always praying for.

I'm convinced that Rush Limbaugh is the Universe's revenge for commercial-free, taxpayer-supported Democratic Party Radio. NPR sucks all the liberals down to the left end of the dial, leaving the commercial radio stations with nothing but conservatives in their audience. So they hire conservative talk radio hosts. There will never be a Limbaugh-scale success with a liberal until they make the "good enough" commercial-free alternative disappear.


28 posted on 07/15/2003 8:13:01 PM PDT by Nick Danger (The liberals are slaughtering themselves at the gates of the newsroom)
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To: rwfromkansas
Any journalist can claim to be objective because they are only "reporting the facts". While there are certainly instances where errors have been made, that's not really where the bias occurs.

The lamestream media knows that when they make an outright error, there are now enough alternative "channels" that they are obligated to publish a correction. Of course, the correction is never given as much emphasis as the original, but it lets them pretend to be honest.

Bias in hard news takes several forms:

  1. Selection of news stories to be broadcast or printed. A great deal goes on in the world every day, and one can't possibly cover all of it. But, media is a business, so they must pick the issues that is most likely to interest their target audience or promote their agenda.

  2. Representation of both sides of an issue. Fairness requires diligence to give equal opportunity to each. You can introduce a lot of bias simply by choosing to interview a proponent that looks good or bad, depending on your desired outcome. Or, you can allow one side to make a faulty assertion without allowing the other side an opportunity for a fair rebuttal.

  3. Quoting people or documents out of context. You've seen the latest example in the DNC ad where they left out an important qualifier in Bush's State of the Union speech. But, the media does it all the time, if it suits their purpose.
The last time I watched broadcast news regularly was during the Iraq conflict earlier this year. I felt that FOX was "cheerleading" for the US effort by concentrating on the successes, while CNN was focusing on every setback. FOX reminded me of the WWII movie newsreels, while I thought people at CNN wanted the US to fail.
29 posted on 07/15/2003 8:34:55 PM PDT by justlurking
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To: RatherBiased.com
CNN fancies itself to be like the network news divisions which all emphasize being boring as an asset.

I figure that comes from the very early days of broadcast news, when sane people would have been terrified of the enormous responsibility they were taking on in attempting to "inform the nation" of what went on that day. That must have been pretty heady stuff. "My God, anything I say into this thing will be heard by 20 million people. I could tell them the Martians have landed, and they'd believe it."

It's interesting that Network News has continued in this vein even as local TV news has turned into a circus. That's probably because the "Big 3" have been locked in essentially a 3-way tie for years. There isn't the incentive to "go for broke" that there would be one of them were obviously going down the tube. This may change as Dan Rather fades, but my guess is that CBS will conclude that Gunda Dan just got too old, so they'll go find a younger pompus @ss and continue along the same path. From a purely business standpoint, the obvious move is to do what Fox did: everybody else is liberal, so we'll be conservative. 100% of 50% is a bigger number than 33%. I expect this to happen at NBC before it happens anywhere else though. Those news divisions are all full of liberals; they'll never do it unless a steely-eyed corporate parent who cares about money, not invitations to Hillary's parties, rams it down their throat. That'll be GE before it will be Disney or Viacom.

    There really are more outlets devoted to giving the conservative perspective of the news than liberal ones.

That's probably true in some numerical sense. We have 213 hay-burner radio stations, while they only have CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN.


30 posted on 07/15/2003 8:55:21 PM PDT by Nick Danger (The liberals are slaughtering themselves at the gates of the newsroom)
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To: Nick Danger
I just thought I would throw this comment to you. That was the most refreshing straight to the honest truth comment I've seen in a long time. Looking forward to hearing more from you.
31 posted on 07/15/2003 9:16:24 PM PDT by Almondjoy
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